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The Silent Treatment

Note: Everyone we encounter—even those we encounter through the media—have the ability to teach us about ourselves, especially if we can become nonjudgmental observers. This is true with our political candidates too. This is not a piece about who is better suited to become president but is instead about what we, as observers, can learn about how we care and manage ourselves in tumultuous dialogues.

I found the September 26th presidential debate fascinating, not because of the content but because of the technique that one of the candidates used so successfully. When I disengaged from the content and became the nonjudgmental observer, I saw Hillary Clinton remained curious and somewhat silent as she created space for Donald Trump to share a great deal of information.

Some of that information would not have been shared had the space been filled by both candidates talking, questioning, and defending. Hillary Clinton chose, intentionally, to allow Donald Trump to fill the space with information versus going in and trying to pull it out of him. Her demeanor, much of the time, depicted exactly what I teach in my Navigating Challenging Dialogue workshop: the ability to stay in your own space, in your business, and to not get triggered.

The same strategy applied in a less hostile environment can reap significant rewards for you! Often because we feel we must have the answers or be the expert, we leave little space for others to share important information. By staying silent yet attentive and curious, (aka relaxed silence) you, like Hillary, will:

  • Save time and energy.

  • Increase clarity.

  • Learn information that may not otherwise have been shared.

  • Encourage reflection.

  • Empower others.

  • Foster connections.

  • Help others feel valued.

  • Co-create solutions.

Here is an example:

Me: “Hi Susan, are you making progress on the project?” Susan: “Yes. I am.” Me: “Great. What day will it be done?” Susan: “I think by Tuesday.” Me: “Thanks.”

There is a whole bunch more information that Susan has that could be very valuable to me (and to her). But that information is left out because of the narrowness of the questions I asked. If instead I had just left space and allowed Susan to bring forth what she felt was important, it could have gone more like this:

Me: “Hi Susan, are you making progress on the project?” Susan: “Yes. I am.” Me: Silent. But attentive. Curious. Susan: “I think I’ll be finished by Tuesday. I ran into a snag getting an answer from the client. Me: Silent. But attentive and curious. Susan: “We worked it out, and I edited the questionnaire so other clients don’t have the same hurdle. I think it will be easier going forward.” Me: “Thanks Susan. That’s great. How about you share that learning at the staff meeting next week?” Susan: “Oh, I’d love too. It will probably save others some time too!”

As you read second example, did you notice where any of the following benefits were realized?

  • Time saved?

  • Clarity was increased?

  • New, unexpected information was shared?

  • Opportunity for reflection?

  • Someone was empowered?

  • A stronger connection was built?

  • Someone may have felt more valued as a contributor?

  • Creation of an unimagined solution?

Many times we are operating under the false premise that we must be the expert in all things. But when we learn to intentionally apply a silent yet curious strategy, we empower others and in turn create more ease in our work and in our relationships.

This is a very nuanced leadership in which the roles are fluid. Leadership is truly shared and situational. As you become more comfortable with attentive silence as a communication tool, you will:

  • Save time by avoiding miscommunication and assumptions.

  • Empower others to reflect upon and share learnings.

  • Gain deeper insight into projects, systems, and people.

  • Build connection and help others feel valued.

To test out my theory, practice this technique with a child or young person in your life. Experiment using silent curiosity, and notice the difference in the level and quantity of information shared, as well as with the quality of the connection you make. It may go something like this:

Me: “Hi. How’s school?” Child: “Fine” Me: Silent. Attentive. Curious. Child: “We are going on a field trip next week.” Me: Silent. Attentive. Engaged. Child: “I’m not sure if I want to go.” Me: “Hmm.” Curious. Attentive. Child: “Sometimes I get sick on the bus.”

Now I can actually interject in a way that is empowering, fosters connection, and creates a solution.

Me: “Oh I see how that can be troubling. How might you prepare for that?” Child: “Maybe I could ask Mom for some medicine to help?” Me: “That is a really good idea. I can’t wait to hear about it.”

I would have never known that the child was struggling with fear around potential motion sickness if my follow-up comment to “We are going on a field trip next week.” was something adults frequently say like, “Oh I loved field trips!” or “That sounds fun.” or “Where are you going?” Or if my response to “I’m not sure I want to go.” was “Sure you do!” or “Oh. You’ll have a good time.”

Letting go of the role of expert also creates space for the emotional intimacy of a shared learning experience—a true place where new ideas and perspectives are born and realized. When you project yourself as the expert, however, you set yourself apart from others and create a barrier to connectivity.

Regardless of how you feel about any of the candidates, there are great lessons you can learn by becoming the observer during their dialogues. I used the debate as an example just the other day with a client. He and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum but that doesn’t matter. He was heated and anxious about an upcoming tough dialogue. I asked him if he watched the debate. He launched into a defense of his candidate and an attack of the other party. But once he calmed and realized I was not taking sides but instead inviting him to observe the candidates’ demeanor as a learning tool to prep for his meeting, he could see the application of the lesson and use this strategy to reap the rewards listed above.

I encourage you to watch a replay of the debate, maybe even turn the volume off so you don’t get triggered by the content, and see if you can notice the application of the curious, attentive listener strategy.

Of course, this was a debate and a hostile environment in which the point is a winner and a loser. The goal was not to have a shared experience in which each party felt valued and together co-created a great solution to the world’s problems (the fatal flaw of the political system). But even in the most negative and hostile of dialogues, lessons exist if we embrace the opportunity to become the observer.

In the coming week, be the observer and look for other examples of where this strategy is successfully applied. Practice the Silent Treatment in your day to day. Play with it. Experiment. And notice if communication shifts, connection deepens, and great solutions are co-created.

In the coming week, be the observer and look for other examples of where this strategy is successfully applied. Practice the Silent Treatment in your day to day. Play with it. Experiment. And notice if communication shifts, connection deepens, and great solutions are co-created.

Have you had to work with that person who is too valuable to fire but whose communication and leadership style continually make others cringe and put the company at risk? Beth Wonson’s unique combination of experience as a business leader, a non-profit leader and 20 years consulting on team development, organizational change and coaching leaders, make her the go to person for transforming personnel liabilities into personnel assets.


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